Book Review: Tony Judt’s Postwar

Culture as History: Two Halves of a Continent With Much in Common, Experiencing Crises in Different Ways

A History of Two Europes

British historian Tony Judt will be in Vienna this month in honor of the August release of the  German edition of Postwar, his monumental account of Europe since 1945.  The scope of this extraordinary work is vast, ranging from the loss of the Portuguese colonies to corruption in Kiev, from the fights within the Irish nationalists to the cultural gaps in times of wellbeing and in periods of recession. Prof. Judt has managed to bring together the many strands that were spun from the ruins of World War II and developed erratically over the continent, and condensed them to fundamental questions: How was a union of all those enemies possible? What perspectives do these players have in common? And what memories of the past do contemporary Europeans preserve?

Born in 1948 in London, Tony Judt is professor of European Studies and director of the Remarque Institute at New York University. But he doesn’t limit himself to an official historiography. Rather, in Postwar he structures the wealth of data, of (sub)cultural testimony and of subjective experiences into an “admittedly personal interpretation.”

The result has been widely praised by liberal and conservative critics alike. Both The Independent and The Wall Street Journal saw Postwar as a challenging, rewarding and very readable book. The Economist took exception and criticized it for “telling us what we already know” (not very likely, given that it is the result of thirteen years of research).

WebsterUniversity’s Media Communications Department Head Michael Freund spoke with Tony Judt in New York and Vienna.


Professor Judt, the initial quotation in your book is from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. It reads: “Is not the past-ness of the past the more profound, the more legendary, the more immediately it falls before the present?” How much are you concerned with time as such, or with historic time?


Judt: I have wrestled at length with the time problem. The point was to deal with the parallel phenomena of history and of memory, that is, the memory of history. The latter has become more and more of an issue in the last fifteen years. Because of growing constraints and the growing impatience of my editor, I finally wrote an essay On Modern European Memory as an epilogue to the book, and it ends with the thought that Europe’s past has to be taught again to each new generation.


You say you decided to write the book while changing trains at the Vienna Westbahnhof in December 1989, a significant moment in postwar time. Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, after the changes in Czechoslovakia, in Poland and Lithuania you realized that a new Europe was being born. How did you proceed from this realization to the plan to write a monumental book about the history of practically all European states from 1945 to 2005?


Judt: Quite pragmatically, with a first step. I left for a weekend – this was in 1992 – and made a rough plan in my head. Next I compiled a reading list that consisted of four categories.

First and most difficult: the hard data and facts. I arrived at approximately thirty-five different categories, from cost of living to electoral results and life expectancies, from ’45 to the present. Graduate students put together these data for me – and this was before the Internet!

Second, the very broad spectrum of secondary literature. I could read the sources myself in English, French, German and Italian, and occasionally I could get by in Spanish, Dutch and Czech.

Third, primary sources like memoirs, novels, essays, commentaries and autobiographies.

And fourth, the “real” primary sources, that is, official documents and archives. I have used them selectively, like the reports about the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the depictions of the Suez crisis or all the material about 1989 – about this, ironically, I found more material in the U.S. than in Western Europe. Altogether, this was a reading project of about ten years.


How did you deal with the fact that you know some European regions very well and others a lot less?


Judt: There is no correct answer to that, as by the way there isn’t any in History in general. Sometimes it is even my own history – I was for example in the middle of things in Paris in 1968. It is clearly the book of a British man with Eastern European roots, of a baby-boomer, a beneficiary of the welfare principle, and someone with a strong interest in the French history of ideas.

And I am not trying to do everything in this book. But precisely because I come from a big country I wanted to give some space to smaller states like Austria or the Benelux countries.


If one thinks of the longstanding debates about Europe and the United States, one is surprised about the relatively small role of America in your book – considering moreover that it was written in New York.


Judt: There are phases in which America or Americanization are important: Suez, the Balkan, and of course the Marshall Plan. But I wanted to tell the specifically European history – and in it not everything took place in the shadow of the U.S.A. 1989 was not U.S.-driven.

On the other hand, the anti-Americanism of the last years is not the same everywhere in Europe. In Scandinavia, for example, there is much less of it than in Germany.


You chose some interesting illustrations for your book. Some of the classic icons are missing – for example the German chancellor Willy Brandt going down on his knees in Warsaw, or the fall of the Berlin Wall. By the same token, there are several examples taken from popular culture: the poster of a Fassbinder movie, a Russian McDonald’s truck, a British caricature. How did you select these?


Judt: It was not a strategy. I wanted to catch the style and the themes of particular periods in unconventional ways. But I did draw a line in my research, and this is reflected in the illustrations: I did not include high culture in a systematic way. I did not feel competent here or could not bring it into the book in an integrated way. I think I am good on cinema, literature and popular entertainment, and weak on science, post-classical music and much of modern art. In order to gain this new expertise, I would have had to spend five more years on the book project.


Where else would you locate some deficits?


Judt: It could be that I did not do justice to Russia, given the size and importance of the country. But you see, much of the writing about Russia is repetitive – the lousy economy, corruption, the old leaders. The reading did not move me to go much further. I did not get the richness of diversity that I found, for example, in Italy.


You once said: The question of what an alternative to Stalin, for example in the person of Bukharin, would have looked like is one of the great questions of the twentieth century. What are some other great themes concerning Europe?


Judt: One important question is how to judge fascism and communism in comparison. In the thirties there were interesting parallels in their economic policies ….


Wolfgang Schivelbusch, the German author living and researching in the US, wrote about this in his book Entfernte Verwandtschaft.


Judt: Yes, about the industrial and economic policies in Germany, Italy, the USA and the Soviet Union. One has to understand this in the context of the times. It was salonfähig. The real controversy is about the moral judgment concerning further developments: How do you compare Mauthausen to the Gulags. Here you get the furious arguments. (The British communist historian) Eric Hobsbawm was very angry at a meeting in Berlin and insisted that you cannot compare the two. He said, Look, I am loyal to communism. To him, Berlin in 1933 opened a gap that has not been closed since and has strengthened his twentieth century belief system. But apart from such viewpoints the question remains open and is discussed vehemently.


So what do you make of the expression “Learning from history”?


Judt: “Remember Munich,” “Remember Yalta” – this I do not have in mind, I don’t lay it across a modern situation. Rather, one should try to understand the past, and this is only possible in retrospect. One should not exploit it for present purposes. For example: Look at Auschwitz as a lesson. But the real lesson is different. The real lesson is: It was not an important theme then! It became important only at the Frankfurt and Eichmann trials.


You are rather critical vis-à-vis the sixties movement that you yourself witnessed. Why?


Judt: I have to sort out two different sets of personal impressions. For one thing, I come from an old left family, so the enthusiasm of the radicals was not new to me. And secondly, yes, in 1968 I was twenty years old. Today a lot of what went on then seems less important, like the freedom from censorship, the clothing styles etc. I think that because we were “the biggest generation” in history, we thought this experience was unique to us.

I am inclined to stand this on its head. Still, some was unique – the scale was enormous, even though some of it was silly, many of the purely intellectual–isms were just silly. But some of the actions were understandable and liberating. If you can separate the silliness and the violent outcomes, then it was okay.

But 1968 was more important in Poland and in Czechoslovakia than it was in the West.


Tony Judt’s Postwar was published in English last fall. The German edition, Geschichte Europas von 1945 bis zur Gegenwart, came out in August (translation by Matthias Fienbork and Hainer Kober).

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